Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 2.14.08

Naked Roots
Picking and planting fruit trees

Need more fruit in your life? Now could be the time to take action. The best time to buy many fruit-bearing plants is February through March. That’s when dormant fruit trees, grape vines and berry canes appear on the market without soil around their roots, and you’ll find a larger selection the earlier you shop.

Container-grown and balled-and-burlapped plants can be acquired and planted just about any time in the growing season, and they have made bare-root planting more or less obsolete for the average gardener. Other than bulbs and tubers, about the only plants that commonly appear bare-root for retail are fruit trees, cane fruit and roses.

Why should you bother with them? For one thing, bare-root plants are considerably less expensive than plants growing in soil. If you are planting a woodlot or an orchard and need a large number of plants, the money saved will easily outweigh the convenience of containers. Bare-root plants are also lighter and easier to transport (one reason they are cheaper), and once in the ground they establish quickly, with fewer subsequent root problems than plants grown in containers.

Bare-root plants do require careful handling. Those naked roots are vulnerable to breakage, freezing and drying, so once you have the plants, they need to go in the ground promptly. If the ground is frozen or saturated, all is not lost — you can “heel them in” (lay them at an angle in a trench filled with loose soil) or store them with the roots in a damp mulch pile. For one or two trees, a large nursery pot full of moist sawdust should be adequate. It’s a good idea to snip off any damaged roots and soak the root mass in a water for a few hours before you plant.

Planting bare-root is not that different from planting any shrub or tree. The hole should be no deeper than the roots of your plant but wide enough to accommodate the roots easily and still allow room to pack soil around them without leaving airspaces. Sunset Western Garden Book recommends making the hole wider at the bottom than at ground level, but this isn’t practical in all soils. Just don’t jam the roots into a cone-shaped hole with a pointy bottom!

Once you have a nice, roomy, roughly flat-bottomed hole, build up a firm little mountain of soil in the middle of it to give the roots something to rest on. Arrange the roots over the built-up mound and check the planting depth. The place where the bottom of the trunk divides into roots should be at or very slightly above soil level. Backfill the hole only with what you took out of it. Don’t amend. If your soil is very hard or clayey, you can break up the soil over an area several times the width of the root mass, turn in some compost and then dig your hole.

Fruit trees should be staked. When planting bare-root, you can drive in a stake a few inches from the trunk before the planting hole is quite full so you won’t risk damage to the roots. Tie the trunk in two places with a strip of T-shirt or something else with give in it. Be sure to water thoroughly after planting, even if it’s raining. Remove the stake at the end of the first growing season or the following spring.

Fruit trees are mostly grafted on the roots of some other, closely related plant. Which rootstock your fruit tree is grafted on will determine how vigorously it grows and how large it can get. In the case of apples, each variety is grafted on one or more of several rootstocks denoted standard (full size), semi-dwarf (60 percent of standard) and dwarf (40 percent). If you want your apple tree to double as a shade tree, you will select standard. In almost every other instance you should probably choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf, and if you are short of space and greedy for varieties (or hate ladders), you can seek out mini-dwarfs (20 percent of standard) and keep them below 6 feet.

Rootstock options for fruit trees other than apples are more limited. Most rootstocks are selected to produce a tree that can be kept around 15 feet, a convenient size for orchards. Some pears are available as dwarfs. Aside from ease of management, the advantage of dwarf trees is that because they are less vigorous, they begin to bear fruit before standard size trees.

I ordered a couple of pie cherry trees this winter from Earth’s Rising Trees in Monroe (541-847-5950). This certified organic nursery will deliver apples, pears, peaches, cherries and plums to Corvallis, Eugene and Springfield for a small fee. Prices are very reasonable and quality appears to be excellent. Two popular Pacific Northwest sources for mail and online orders are Raintree Nursery and One Green World. In addition to the familiar fruit trees, berries and currants, they list many more unusual fruit-bearing plants, including natives.

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past Eugene Weekly columns. She can be reached at